Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Writer's Reference Shelf

Hi, Seekerville, it's Myra today, talking about essential books for a working writer's reference shelf. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably started your own collection on craft, technique, and the writing business in general. Today I thought I’d share several of my favorites and invite you to do the same.

Finding the right words: Nothing beats the traditional Roget’s International Thesaurus. I still have the copy given to me as a high-school graduation gift, and it remains a favorite. I realize I’m dating myself, but it’s the Third Edition, copyright 1962 (which is actually a few years before my graduation, please take note).

Within easy reach I also have:
  • Roget’s Super Thesaurus--entries in dictionary format, plus word-find lists to help you find just the right term.
  • The Synonym Finder--also in dictionary format.
  • Flip Dictionary--"for when you know what you want to say but can’t think of the word," this one helps you search by concept or phrase.
  • The Dimwit’s Dictionary--a guide to overused words and phrases with suggested alternatives. A must for the cliché-addicted.
  • Idiom Savant--the lingo of subcultures. If you want to know how a real estate agent or an in-line skater talks, for example, this is the book for you. (Caveat: this has been in print awhile, so usage may have changed.)
Then there’s the ultimate writer’s essential, Chicago Manual of Style. I resisted this investment for years but finally ordered my very first copy a few weeks ago. The detail is daunting, but so much fun to explore!

Writing basics: In my humble opinion, the best all-around guide to writing a good novel is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Maybe you’ve heard Randy Ingermanson speak on MRUs (motivation-reaction units). Swain takes you through the whole process of scene, sequel, and much, much more. If you can buy only one book on craft, this is the one.

Also recommended:
The next steps: Once your novel is drafted, the real work begins--revising, polishing, researching markets, preparing proposals. First of all, make sure you have the latest edition of Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers’ Market Guide so you know who’s buying what.

Then you may find help in a few of these:
If you specialize in certain genres--mystery, suspense, crime, medical, historical, biblical etc.--you’ll need a whole other collection of reference books. But also remember that procedures can change, science and archaeology can produce new discoveries, and jargon can become outdated. Make sure you stay on top of the latest developments.

Now it’s your turn. Which writing references do you consult most often? If you could keep only three writing books on your shelf, which ones would they be, and why?


  1. Great post, Myra! I have several of the books you list on my shelves, but not all.

    I write historicals so I'll add two dictionaries to the list:

    Merriam-Webster's Collegiate that dates when words came into usage.

    The American Heritage dic.tion.ary of Idioms that dates the age of expressions.

    Also own and enjoyed reading Stephen King's On Writing.


  2. Good one, Myra.

    1. GMC by Deb Dixon

    2. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Swain

    3. The Heroes Two Journeys by Hague and Vogler (DVD edition)

    Indispensable and read yearly or more.

  3. Excellent, Myra! And your bookshelf is almost a clone of mine! (Now I'm ditching the blog post I'd already written on this same topic. Guess that's what I get for trying to do them ahead -- beaten to the draw by another Seeker!) I also have on my shelf "Writing for Emotional Impact" by Karl Iglesias and "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder.

  4. Dear Lord, Myra, this is a first for me!! I have printed off MANY a Seeker blog, but NEVER have I saved the specific link before, but I am doing it now.

    I can't tell you how many e-mails I get from people asking me for tips and how I got published, etc., and I always tell them everything I did on the road to publication and, of course, refer them to the Seekers site.

    BUT, my friend, this is SO good and SO thorough, that I am copying the link and going to give it to everyone who asks for publishing tips in the future. EXCELLENT blog, Myra!

    Oh, and The Synonym Finder is my absolute writer's Bible!!! I obliterated the first copy and am now on the 2nd (hardback, this time!). Would you believe, I get a tiny, little thrill in my stomach everytime my fingers walk the pages? :)


  5. Great post, good heavens! This is like an author's Dream Book Shelf, Non-Fiction.

    But not a one of you has brought food. Oh, mylanta, people, we have hunger issues going on here!


    Okay, I baked yesterday so we've got a wonderful array of breakfast breads including cinnamon nut (toaster is to your right), apple pie bread, cranberry/orange bread and banana bread, studded with mini chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.

    Soooo good.

    And where's Ann with the coffee?? Ann, if you've got some extra, bring it along, won't you, dear? I'm getting low and must contact our coffee suppliers ASAP.



  6. Oh thank goodness you brought food Ruthy, I got a hunger attack reading that list. My reaction unfortunately whenever I see something so daunting.
    But what a list. I love all of those books and aren't we blessed to have such resources? Can I come camp out in your office Myra? Thanks girlfriend.

    I also have You Are Your First Name by Ellin Dodge which lists 1,000 names and personality traits of the name. Well you have to take it with a grain of salt, but it gives you ideas for personality traits to go with the name.

    Twenty Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias is also good.

  7. Myra, will read and comment more later, but I spotted Swain's yellow book even without zooming in on the picture.

    Mallory Kane (HQ Intrique author) calls it "Swain's ugly yellow book". The color and size make really easy to find in the stacks of how-to books and fiction books lying around the house.

  8. Noah Lukeman in his book, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, says, "There is no such thing as a great writer; there are only great re-writers. As you've heard before, 90 percent of writing is rewriting. If the first drafts existed of some classics, you'd find many of the dreadful. This process of rewriting draws heavily on editing. And editing can be taught. "

    I have many of the already mentioned craft of writing books. My favorite one is...

    The Internet

    Even if a writer can afford to buy all or many or even a few of the craft of writing resources Myra and others have suggested, s/he can always use the internet for free.

    Alicia Rasley has an archive of articles that are worth a book's weight in gold.

    Many many many authors have links to character worksheets on their websites or blogs. Just go to the archived Seeker blog posts.

    Good stuff, Maynard.

    Missy suggested Alicia Rasley's THE STORY WITHIN GUIDEBOOK last December. So I bought it.

    Fabulous book!!!

    What saddens me is when a writer says craft of writing books bore her.

    I say, "Try them again. Try a different one. Try, try, try."

    The publishing market is too competitive for you to go in ill-equipped.

    Lately my prayer has been, "Lord, give me the spiritual gift of instruction. I want a teachable spirit and mind."

    Now I gotta go let the whining dog out to tinkle.

  9. Ruthy, thanks for setting out the morning spread. I knew we could count on you!

    One reference I didn't include was a good dictionary--but that almost goes without saying. ;> Thanks for the recommendations, Janet. I like the idea of being able to know when a word came into popular usage.

    Tina, I'm a big fan of Michael Hauge, too. I'll never forget his terrific workshops at RWA that year.

    Glynna, so sorry I beat you to the punch! Save your post for a refresher down the road, okay? Nothing is ever wasted!

  10. Oh, Pam, I guess the yellow Swain dates me, huh? I've had it for several years now.

    And for a closer look at the titles on my shelf, you can click on the photo and see it full-size. BTW, these are only 2 shelves of my 4-shelf writing bookshelf. The lower shelves contain research references.

  11. Good point about using the Internet, Gina. More and more authors are including craft articles on their Web sites--great info for free!

    I think the best thing about reading lots of writing books is that even if you can't use (much less absorb!) everything from every book, it sort of soaks into your subconscious, and the next time you're writing, you have a little something extra to work with.

  12. I'm just staring goggle-eyed at this list of books. I have a dictionary, Thesaurus, AP Stylebook and "Plot and Structure." So many other possibilities!

    If you all could pick out just one, what would it be?

    I'm fixing a fresh pot of German roast. This is great stuff from Aldi's. The kettle is on for tea -- Irish breakfast and Japanese green -- and marshmallow laden Swiss Miss.

  13. I just pulled GMC off the shelf again last night to re-read, trying to refresh my mind and memory as I launch into writing a new book.

    Lovely list, Myra.

    I very much enjoyed King's On Writing.

    I also use Biblegateway.com and dictionary.com a lot.

  14. I've got a Strongs Concordance which I use a suprising amount, looking for a Bible verse I'm not that sure of the location.

    One warming, these things are expensive and I made a mistake in buying mine. Tricky so follow along.

    I bought it in King James. I didn't mean to. I don't remember when I bought it because it was a long time ago (yes, Ruthy, King James was actually still alive when I started writing-shut up)
    I don't think I even realized there were Strong's Concordance's in versions.
    Well, the real trouble with that is, though I read NIV now, I learned so many verses that seem to be what I've got memorized (or better way to put it--fragmented and bouncing around in my head) in RSV, which is all they had when I was a kid. (yes, Ruthy, chiseled on a cave sall-shut up)
    So, when I'm groping around for a verse the words that come to me are often in Revised, my concordance is in KJ and my modern Bible reading is in NIV so some of the words I've got memorized aren't even in the Strongs. So be mindful of what your MEMORY of Bible verses in in, because that's what you'll be fumbling with when using the concordance.

    There's more. New comment box

  15. I also got a book that isn't a traditional reference book.
    The Birth Order Book by Kevin Leman
    Pretty interesting look at personalities and all their variations and how birth order affects that, which is an interesting book when I'm building a character.

    He's got so many nuances that I'm not real sure his findings are that useful psychologically speaking, though I think I see all four of my daughters in a really clear way in his Oldest, Middle, Youngest, Straggler descriptions. But aside from raising children, for creating conflict and emotional grounding in fictional characters, it's pretty good and it seems to kind of spark my imagination.

  16. AND!!!

    I just updated my profile picture. What do you think?

    Does the pink make my butt look fat???

  17. Hi, Myra! Great list of references!

    I love my Synonym Finder, although I only use it on rare occasions. More often I will think of word that's almost right but not quite, I type it, then I right-click on it and click on synonyms and Word give me a nice little list. Usually, one of those words is the exact right word.

    I also pay $15 a year for the online version of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. It includes a great Thesaurus and other information. It also tells me the date, or at least the century, when the word was first used, which is invaluable to me as a historical writer. LOVE having it right on my computer, just a couple of clicks away.

    I LOVE the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, although I didn't use it for my latest novel. It is great, though, for helping you come up with great plot and characterization ideas.

    I have read and benefited from several books on the writing craft, but, to tell you the truth, the last couple of times I tried to read a book on the craft of writing, I couldn't keep my eyes open. Not sure what that says about me! But Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer--couldn't stay awake. Didn't even get halfway through it. Wasted money, I'm embarrassed to say.

  18. I use the limited thesaurus in my Microsoft Works. Seriously, I need to study, read and get more books. I haven't and some of those books you named (like the synonym finder) sound really great.
    As for MRU's, I just had a discrepancy judge blast me on that, and though I've heard of them, I didn't understand exactly what the judge meant. Looks like it's time to read up.
    Thanks for the post Myra.

  19. I wanted to add, I need to get a copy of that Creating Character Emotions. I'd like to be really good at this, and I get tired of saying something cliche-ish about their pounding heart or clenching stomach, although those are good if used sparingly.

    GMC is a must-read, as well as many others of those you listed, Myra. I agree with Julie. This is a GREAT link for those wanting to know how to write better or how to get published.

  20. What a great library! I have a lot of the ones you listed, Myra, plus other goodies like Writing the Christian Romance (not something you pros probably need, but good for newbies like myself.) The one that always makes me laugh is Write Is a Verb. The first time my 9YO saw it he read the title out loud, made the hrmph face every mother knows, and said, "Well, duh, Mama. What else would it be?" If he only knew ... :-)

    My writing books compete for shelf space with quite a few different Bible translations and reference books. I like to speak at churches and also use them to help beef up Sunday school lessons for my middle school kids. (Mary, I have the mongo size KJV Strong's too -- great for weightlifting practice.)

    And then there are the notebooks full of printouts, copies of Christian Communicator from ACW, and oodles of Writer's Digests. No wonder my office always looks like it just survived an explosion! My husband doesn't come in any more often than he has to, but if he ever says anything I'll fall back on Gina's philosophy:

    "The publishing market is too competitive for you to go in ill-equipped." Amen! I'm not being a pack rat -- I'm equipping myself! LOL

  21. Mary, you are a vision in pink. What is the secret for your youthful appearance--oh wait, could THAT be ELLE, the now world-famous granddaughter???

    One of these days we need someone to post on the best software tools for writers. Before I switched to the Mac, I used QuickVerse Bible software to help me find scripture references. Then I used the online service Bible Gateway for a long time because I wasn't ready to invest in Bible software for the Mac. However, a couple of weeks ago I finally broke down and purchased Logos, and so far I'm impressed. Still learning the ins and outs, though.

  22. Sorry Swain didn't do it for you, Melanie. If you can still find copies anywhere, the book Writing Novels that Sell by Swain's protege, Jack Bickham, is perhaps a little easier to get through and almost as good.

  23. Ann, I think I'm getting a whiff of your pot roast and it's making me hungry!

    Hmmmm, one book? As I said, Dwight Swain's would be my pick. But if you've got Plot and Structure you're off to a good start. Maybe GMC? Anyone else want to chime in?

  24. Excellent information. Thanks.

    For historical writing, I like to buy a dictionary from the period I am writing about. If it’s 1850, for example, I’d buy a dictionary published before that date. Very old doctrinaires are not very expensive, if they are not in near perfect condition. Just check Ebay.

    Having an actual dictionary from the time you are writing about will allow you to see what was not in the dictionary as well as what was in it. You can also hold the well worn book and the ‘vibes’ of all the people in the past who have used that book will communicate directly with your muse and open the floodgates of creativity when you least expect it.

    I will also buy a complete copy of a newspaper from the time period. These are not very expensive if you are not picky about condition, newspaper, or getting an important historical date. Be sure to read the paper, often only 4 to 6 pages long, from front to back. See what kinds of things were making the news back then. You’ll get more ideas than you can use. Try it.


  25. Great resource list, Myra!

    Most of the ones I use are those you have listed here.

    My top three favs are
    The First Five pages by Noah Lukeman
    Donald Maass's Breakout Novel and workbook.
    Deb Dixon's GMC.

    And online, I use Dictionary.com the most.

  26. Good suggestions, Vince. Along those lines, I can also recommend the research Web site NewspaperArchive.com. You have to pay a monthly membership fee, but it gives you access to historical newspapers from many, many cities. You can see the entire paper right there online.

  27. I think you just helped me make next year's Christmas list, Myra. I have several of the ones you mentioned, but I can see my library is incomplete. Janet, I love my American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. It really comes in handy.

    Two online sources I find invaluable are:

    biblegateway[dot]com--lets you look up passages by word or by scripture reference in just about every translation known to man

    The Chronicling of America from the Library of Congress--has a great selection of historic newspapers online that lets you look up a topic, by location, and by date. No hours spent looking through microfiche for one little word.

    And Mary, she's adorable!

  28. What one book is within reach if I'm rewriting?

    Roget's Thesaurus.

    I have several others, but review them as needed or when the mood strikes.

    Techniques by Swain
    Pam McCutheon's Synopsis book
    Deb Dixon's GMC
    Gilbert Morris' book (I'm at work; can't remember the title)
    JSB's Plotting book.
    Bird by Bird by Lamotte
    Something by Browne & King
    Brainstorming Kit that's kind of fun.
    King's On Writing

  29. Hi Kids,
    Wow, what a list of references! I've printed off the blog and the comments. So many good books, so little money....

    Here are a couple more to add:

    Careers for Your Characters and


    Sorry I don't have authors for these books, I'm at work.

    Another good reference for anyone needed help with horticulture, agriculture, home economics is your local Extension Office : ) Tons of Fact Sheets on almost any problem you might be having : )

    Great post, Myra!! Made me drool -- over the references, not the cooking : )

  30. Good point, Audra! The local extension office usually has a wealth of material to help with research. Wish I thought of that more often.

    And I do own the book Careers for Your Characters. Obviously I have a lot more great books on my self than I had room to list.

    Pam, that "something" title you were going for must be Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It's definitely one of my favorites.

  31. On my self????

    Obviously I meant "on my SHELF."

  32. Myra,

    All the books you mention are great and I've read most of them.

    "On Writing Romance: how to craft a novel that sells" by Leigh Michaels is very good.

    Here are a few less famous ones I learned from and I don't think were mentioned.

    I recently met Elizabeth Sinclair and like her book "The Dreaded Synopsis: A Writing & Plotting Guide."

    Although I don't agree with her lifestyle, I have always been fascinated with Helen Gurley Brown and her success at "Cosmopolitan" magazine.

    Her book "The Writer's Rules: The Power of Positive Prose--How to create it and get it published" is quite good. See has 50 rules for first-rate writing. "Be specific rather than general. Bad example: She liked pretty, feminine things. Better example: She liked Wedgwood, chintz and ruffles. Many of the ideas work for both nonfiction and fiction. The way Gurley Brown communicates through writing is a lesson in itself.

    Finally, does anyone else have a book that isn't really a craft book but still helped them with their writing? Mine in that category is called "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her." One writer was very prolific and wrote no matter what the circumstances. All the writers accepted editing as a way of life which seems like a good idea to me. Wish I'd done that sooner.


  33. What a fantastic article. I'm saving and printing it. I have question, though, about the Idiom Savant. Does it help create accents/lingo for English speakers from foreign countries?



  34. Hi, April. No, the idiom book is mainly a dictionary of slang used by specific groups--skateboarders, real estate agents, short-order cooks, gamblers, etc. It's fun just reading through the listings!

    Cathy, thanks for the additional suggestions! On your question about helpful books that aren't exactly about writing . . . I might include those by Anne Lamott and Madaleine L'Engle.